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In 1980, IBM was at an impasse. Having already missed the market for minicomputers, it was now seeing a new cadre of competitors emerge. Fledgling companies like Apple and Commodore were selling stripped down computers for personal use and the market was growing quickly. It looked like IBM would miss out again.

So the company’s leadership authorized Don Estridge and Bill Lowe to set up a skunk works in Boca Raton, FL and begin work on what was to become the PC. Working largely in secret and eschewing many of IBM’s traditional standards and processes, the team would bring the PC to market in just a year and change computer history.

Today, the computer industry is at a similar impasse. As Moore’s Law comes to an end, there is an urgent need to introduce new computing architectures, one of the most promising being quantum computing. However, this time, rather than working in secret, it has embarked on a highly collaborative journey to advance the technology and bring it to market.

Building The Quantum Experience

While the parallels between the PC and quantum computing are interesting, the two technologies are very different. “When we were developing the PC, the challenge was to build a different kind of computer based on the same technology that had been around for decades,” Bob Sutor, VP – IBM Q Strategy and Ecosystem, told me.

“In the case of quantum computing, the technology is completely different and most of it was, until fairly recently, theoretical,” he continued. “Only a small number of people understand how to build it. That requires a more collaborative innovation model to drive it forward.”

So in 2016 the company launched its Quantum Experience program, allowing anyone who wanted to access an early prototype quantum computer. The initiative has been a major success. To date, over 100,000 users have run over seven million experiments, ranging from just fooling around (at least in my case) to serious scientific inquiries.

Yet the Q network is not about pure altruism. IBM has learned a lot from it, such as which logical functions are in high demand, how to make the system more stable and how to improve user experience. The company has also replaced that early prototype with more powerful versions that allow it to learn even more.

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